DMSO is a polar aprotic solvent.DMSO is frequently used as a solvent for chemical reactions involving salts, most notably Finkelstein reactions and other nucleophilic substitutions. It is also extensively used as an extractant in biochemistry and cell biology.
The sulfur center in DMSO is nucleophilic toward soft electrophiles and the oxygen is nucleophilic toward hard electrophiles. The methyl groups of DMSO are somewhat acidic in character (pKa=35) due to the stabilization of the resultant carbanion by the S(O)R group, and so are deprotonated with strong bases like lithium diisopropylamide and sodium hydride. The sodium salt of DMSO formed in this way is a useful base, e.g. it is often used for the deprotonation of ketones to form sodium enolates, phosphonium salts to form Wittig reagents, and formamidinium salts to form diaminocarbenes.
DMSO is used in PCR to inhibit secondary structures in the DNA template or the DNA primers. It is added to the PCR mix before reacting, where it interferes with the self-complementarity of the DNA, minimizing interfering reactions.
DMSO may also be used as a cryoprotectant, added to cell media to reduce ice formation and thereby prevent cell death during the freezing process. Approximately 10% may be used with a slow-freeze method, and the cells may be frozen at -80 °C or stored in liquid nitrogen safely.
DMSO is commonly used in veterinary medicine as a liniment for horses, alone or in combination with other ingredients. In the latter case, often, the intended function of the DMSO is as a solvent, to carry the other ingredients across the skin. Also in horses, DMSO is used intravenously, again alone or in combination with other drugs. It is used alone for the treatment of increased intracranial pressure and/or cerebral edema in horses.